There is something strange about the Boston Police Department. The city is about 24 percent black, according to the 2010 census, but of the 51 lieutenants on the force, just two are black men. Of 23 captains, the only black man retired yesterday.
In 2008, dozens of police officers filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the state exam used to promote officers to sergeant was discriminatory. On Tuesday, nine black Boston police supervisors filed another federal lawsuit claiming that the city's lieutenant examination was discriminatory too.
Boston police officers are promoted to sergeant or lieutenant based mostly on the results of a written exam, prepared by the state Human Resources Division. Blacks and Hispanics consistently perform more poorly on the test.
"Virtually all big cities in the United States use these multi-component assessment centers," Harold Lichten, the lawyer for the officers, told AOL Jobs, referring to a more modern type of examination that involves interviews and simulations. "And Boston is using a 100-question pen and paper memory test from the '20s. It's literally like riding a Studebaker."
The racial gap in test scores is a controversial topic that reaches far beyond Boston police officer promotions. According to The College Board's 2005 data, the mean SAT score for whites was 17 percent higher than that for blacks. Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean score 61 points higher than blacks whose families earned between $80,000 and $100,000.
Because public schools in predominately black neighborhoods are underfunded compared to majority white schools, some claim that black students have not received the same training in this kind of multiple choice test-taking. The stereotype of blacks and Hispanics as bad test-takers may also be a self-fulfilling prophesy, in a phenomenon that Stanford psychology professor Claude Steele dubbed "stereotype vulnerability."
Whatever the reason, Lichten believes the outcomes speak for themselves. "The impetus for this [complaint] is the striking, shocking lack of minority police lieutenants," he told The Boston Globe. "The statistics are just horrible."
Boston stopped issuing any promotion exams after 2008, as it waits for the judge for the first lawsuit to reach his decision. All further promotions have been based on results from that year. None of the 23 officers promoted to lieutenant in the city since then have been minority, according to Lichten.
Under federal law, employers can't use a testing system that disproportionately affects a minority adversely, unless it truly predicts job performance. Critics of the civil service exam say it fails to evaluate candidates on qualities that actually make for a good police department leader.
"The Army would never promote people using pen and paper tests when you're looking for people who can lead in battle," Lichten told the Globe. "Well, lieutenants lead in battle."
In August last year, the U.S. Department of Justice declared the New Jersey police sergeant promotion test discriminatory. The state was required to pay $1 million in back pay to black and Hispanic officers, who were considered harmed by the system.
In court, Boston officials have defended the civil service exam. "The test is a valid selection instrument," said Bill Sinnott, corporation counsel for the city of Boston. "By valid, we mean that the exam adequately tests the candidate's knowledge, skills and abilities in order to perform the functions of the position."
But Commissioner Edward F. Davis has stated that he would prefer a more holistic exam that moves way beyond a multiple-choice test. He formed a diversity council to dream up a solid alternative, but the group apparently hasn't met for four months.
"I think the city would like to change the exam," says Lichten, "but it would create a lot of ruffled feathers to change a system that's been around for 50, 60 years."
"We have a mayor who's been here for 20 years, and has a tendency to not have city agencies reflect the city's diversity," Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and a Boston detective, told AOL Jobs. Boston, he points out, has never had a black Police Commissioner.
Lichten thinks officials are just waiting for an order to be handed down from a federal judge. "I think the Commissioner and other officials are actually rooting for us to win," he says.
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